Memories Are Made of This
Renaissance man Ben Fong-Torres muses about reunions, memories, and congratulates the Community Youth Center in SF Chinatown. The CYC has a brand new home, and unveils a plaque honoring Barry Fong-Torres - his late brother.
ALL YOU CAN REMEMBER: For a 50th year reunion of a junior high school class, it was a low-key affair. Actually, it was not a full-blown reunion of the class of 59 at Westlake Junior High, three-year home away from home for the kids of Oakland Chinatown. Organized by Lucky Owyang, it gathered just a couple dozen alumni, mostly Asian American. It did not take place in a hotel banquet room or an outdoor picnic. We met at Fortuna Buffet, an all-you-can-eat emporium in Chinatown, where seniors (thats us!) could load up to our heart conditions desire for $7.99.
That is my kind of reunion!
Anyway, we had a blast especially once we figured out who we all were. (There were no name tags; no program; just show up and hang out.) This was on the eve of that Telling Your Story series I was kicking off at The Redwoods (see my previous dispatch) in Marin County, so I was already open to nostalgia. Sure enough, a woman sat down next to me and proceeded to tell me that at Westlake (where I was student body president) and Oakland High (where I became Commissioner of Assemblies and produced the almost-weekly programs), I was looked up to.
This was not an easy feat, as I was just about the shortest kid in school. But, she pressed on, You were on the student council, and you were up on that stage in front of the whole school. All us Chinese Americans thought that was special, and we were proud of you.
Funny thing; I never knew that. For one thing, every day, after school, I had to flee and catch the bus to Hayward, 14 miles away, to work at the family restaurant. For another, when I was in school, the remarks I got in the hallways were more Hey, youre funny or Hey, tell me a joke than Hey, we respect you!
Fifty years later, I know the truth. Now, if only I can think of a joke...
PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORIES: Speaking of my Telling Your Story event, Leah Garchik wrote about it in her column in the S.F. Chronicle and followed it up with this item, which I will simply quote: Adam Chin, nephew of the late photographer Benjamen Chinn, has put together a Web site (www.benjamenchinn.com) that includes his uncles crisp black and white images of Chinatown in the late 1940s. Chinn, born in 1921, grew up there in a family that included 12 siblings. At the California School of Fine Arts, which later became the S.F. Art Institute, the young photographer was a student of Ansel Adams and Minor White. He lived in the Chinatown house in which he grew up until a year before he died, in April.
I visited the site, which offers marvelous photos of kids in Chinese school, a cashier behind his abacus; early New Year parades, merchants at work, and pictures only a resident, an insider, could shoot. There is also a shot of Mr. Chinn by Imogen Cunningham, another of his teachers. Note that his name was Benjamen, and he went by Ben. My birth certificate shows a similar misspelling: Benjaman. Soon as I learned to, I ignored it, too, and went for the shorter form. Gung Hay to Ben Chinn. Check out the site his family has built. You will enjoy your visit.
YOUTH SHALL BE SERVED: Congratulations and thanks to the Community Youth Center, formerly the Chinatown Youth Center, and, before that--back in the early 70s--the Chinatown/North Beach Youth Council. This organization, which deals with myriad problems and challenges faced by young people (and their families), just opened its new home. For the first time in its nearly 30-year history, CYC owns its own building, and it celebrated with lion dancers, speeches and a ribbon-cutting ceremony early in September.
I say thanks because the CYC included, as part of its open house, the unveiling of a plaque in the lobby, remembering Barry Fong-Torres -- my brother -- who was the organizations Executive Director in 1972, until he was murdered at his home, one night in June. The homicide remains unsolved, but theories connect his death with his work, which included dealing with members of youth gangs in Chinatown.
My sister Shirley, who operates the Chinatown tour company, Wok Wiz, and I offered brief remarks at the ceremony. We reminded the CYC staff and friends that Barry, who had been a probation officer and had worked with kids in Oakland and Richmond, had chosen to leave a stable job to work in Chinatown. It was his way of coming home. And, now, thanks to the long memory of the staff of the Community Youth Center, he will always be home.
NEW BOOK: I am still working away on the Quincy Jones book project. It is in limbo because of hassles with a publisher but, meantime, I cranked out another book. Just a historical narrative, actually, for The Grateful Dead Scrapbook (Chronicle Books). The real star attraction is a collection of fold-out, folded-in and removeable memorabilia having to do with the storied band: handbills, replicas of tickets, mini-posters; set lists created by a superfan, and on and on. I also did pieces on ten or so songs that served as Dead landmarks. And the packager, becker&mayer!, produced a CD of interviews with the band members by several journalists, including me. All together, a pretty far-out book, even encased in a slipcover all for $40 (and, no doubt, priced lower online). A deluxe edition, with a DVD and even fancier packaging, is selling on the Deads own site, dead.net, for $75.
Ben Fong-Torres' latest book is The Grateful Dead Scrapbook. He writes the radio column in the San Francisco Chronicle (sfgate.com), has a DJ show on www.KYAradio.com weeknights 7-9 p.m. (Pacific time), blogs on Wolfgang's Vault and Redroom.com, and will soon have a new home page on lifeyo.com.